Protein language models can capture protein quaternary state

Orly Avraham, Tomer Tsaban, Ziv Ben-Aharon, Linoy Tsaban, Ora Schueler-Furman*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Determining a protein’s quaternary state, i.e. the number of monomers in a functional unit, is a critical step in protein characterization. Many proteins form multimers for their activity, and over 50% are estimated to naturally form homomultimers. Experimental quaternary state determination can be challenging and require extensive work. To complement these efforts, a number of computational tools have been developed for quaternary state prediction, often utilizing experimentally validated structural information. Recently, dramatic advances have been made in the field of deep learning for predicting protein structure and other characteristics. Protein language models, such as ESM-2, that apply computational natural-language models to proteins successfully capture secondary structure, protein cell localization and other characteristics, from a single sequence. Here we hypothesize that information about the protein quaternary state may be contained within protein sequences as well, allowing us to benefit from these novel approaches in the context of quaternary state prediction. Results: We generated ESM-2 embeddings for a large dataset of proteins with quaternary state labels from the curated QSbio dataset. We trained a model for quaternary state classification and assessed it on a non-overlapping set of distinct folds (ECOD family level). Our model, named QUEEN (QUaternary state prediction using dEEp learNing), performs worse than approaches that include information from solved crystal structures. However, it successfully learned to distinguish multimers from monomers, and predicts the specific quaternary state with moderate success, better than simple sequence similarity-based annotation transfer. Our results demonstrate that complex, quaternary state related information is included in such embeddings. Conclusions: QUEEN is the first to investigate the power of embeddings for the prediction of the quaternary state of proteins. As such, it lays out strengths as well as limitations of a sequence-based protein language model approach, compared to structure-based approaches. Since it does not require any structural information and is fast, we anticipate that it will be of wide use both for in-depth investigation of specific systems, as well as for studies of large sets of protein sequences. A simple colab implementation is available at: .

Original languageAmerican English
Article number433
JournalBMC Bioinformatics
Issue number1
StatePublished - 14 Nov 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023, The Author(s).


  • Deep learning
  • Multilayer perceptron
  • Natural language processing
  • Oligomeric state prediction
  • Protein language models
  • Protein quaternary state


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